There is an old Zen story about a woman who had suffered a loss and went to the Buddha for help. “Please relieve me of my suffering.” “Easily done,” said the Buddha. “Just bring me a person who hasn’t suffered a loss.” The woman went from door to door but couldn’t find anyone who hadn’t had a similar experience. She returned to the Buddha ready to hear the first Buddhist precept, “Life is suffering.”
I think the same could be said of people who have been disappointed or betrayed. We all have our stories. We’ve been treated unfairly in our work. Or spoken out in an unjust situation with the backing of our colleagues at the water-cooler only to find ourselves alone on the front lines in the meeting. Or suffered the barbs of a narrow-minded newspaper critic. Or were at the wrong end of a smear campaign. Or generally felt that the world missed the opportunity to recognize our genius. All the myriad ways we expect life to be fair and people to be kind and just and all the ways they disappoint us, misunderstand us, reject us. And no matter how strong and clear we feel in our inner core, all the ways we begin to wonder if they were right. As Yeats so brilliantly puts it in A Dialogue of Self and Soul:
“How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?”
I found myself telling my old war stories to my host in New York this weekend and though each story was at least mildly entertaining and had a larger point and punch line, it seems that other people’s stories are interesting only up to a point. And after I had gone through my list of the Institutions who had failed me (leaving out my high school pole vaulting story), I couldn’t help but wonder if I had passed that point with my host and started to come off as one of those angry, bitter old people. For no matter how detached or removed I think I am, telling the story to shed light on the workings of political power, the glory and necessity of resistance, the grist that betrayal provides the mill of growing one’s Soul, I’m sure there is an element of whining that creeps in. Our emotional memory is such that each re-telling of the story kicks in the same visceral physical reactions, brain patterns and heart responses that were present at the event itself. We literally hurt ourselves all over again when we call up those patterns in each re-telling. The whine creeps in. And nobody likes to hear someone whine, whether you’re 2, 42, or 82.
So I’m making a public vow by proclaiming February my personal “no whining” month. (It was timely that this thought came when it did, at the beginning of the shortest month!) And I in no way want to imply anything for Black History Month, though perhaps that is timely also. Along with Native Americans, ain’t no group of people in this country more entitled to whine than black folks. But whether a person or a group, whining only goes so far and then, as a friend of mine always quips, “build a bridge”—ie, get over it. Well, that can be too simplistic. More like go through it and come out the other end with dignity intact, love increased, determination renewed and the story re-told in a new frame.
No matter how much we hate to think it at the time of betrayal, we ultimately must thank everyone who did us wrong. A quick look back at our life often reveals that the door they slammed in our face turned us towards another necessary opening in our life that proved essential. On some level, such people in our life are appointed by our invisible helpers to see just how serious we are. They’re the gatekeepers of the Soul, providing the resistance that gives us strength if we accept the trial. Constant praise, affirmation, loving pats on the back can make us lazy and flabby from too much comfort.
I remember that old Greek myth from my childhood, where Hercules wrestles Antaeus, the son of Gaia (Mother Earth). Everytime he threw Antaeus to the ground, he sprung up stronger, renewed by contact with his Mother Earth. Hercules eventually won by holding him up in the air, something akin to a life of constant praise to the adoring crowds. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
So my February challenge is to tell the story as needed without a whining me in the center. Wish me luck. Pleeeeeeaaassse?